I was so happy the day I received my Israeli passport. It came in the mail one hot summer day in 1996, two years after I’d made aliyah and become a citizen.
I was living in Tel Aviv, and I practically whooped when I saw the dark-blue booklet with the gold-embossed letters tucked inside the government-issue envelope. Sure, I’d already been voting for two years, and I had my teudat zehut, my Israeli identity card, but there was something special about the passport, proclaiming to the world that I belonged to the Jewish state.
I left Israel the next year and returned to California, where I’ve lived ever since, but I held on to the passport. It reminds me of who I am — an American and an Israeli. It gives me certain cred when I criticize a government minister or bemoan an Israeli election result. Hey, I have the right — I’m part of the country. I’m so proud to tell people that I have dual citizenship, and that the second one is Israeli.
Most of all, I love landing at Ben Gurion Airport and heading for the line for Israeli citizens. Sometimes — less often now than in the early years — the soldier at passport control says brucha haba’a habayita, Hebrew for welcome home. The first time I heard that, tears came to my eyes.
An Israeli passport is good for 10 years, so I renewed it for the first time in 2006. Last month it was due for renewal again, so I dropped it off at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco with my photo and the $76 fee.
Then I got the call. We can’t renew your passport, the consular officer told me. You didn’t live in Israel long enough after you got it. You’re still a citizen, he assured me, but we can only issue you “travel documents,” which you have to use when entering and leaving Israel. No passport. Not for you.
I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. I was despondent. I walked around under a black cloud the rest of the day.
Why did it hit me so hard? I think because I worked so hard not just to become Israeli, but to become Jewish. Having my passport taken away felt as if my entire Jewish identity was being put into question.
As I’ve written before, my parents were intermarried and I didn’t have a Jewish upbringing except for the occasional Hanukkah candles and the yearly Passover seders at my Jewish grandparents’ home. That was enough to steer me toward two six-month stints on kibbutzim as a teenager, where I learned Hebrew in ulpan programs. At 19, I went to the mikvah for my conversion.
While the seders made me feel Jewish, what ultimately brought me to the mikvah was the time I spent in Israel. In ulpan, we would sing Hebrew songs from the early pioneer days about building the land and celebrating our people. But was it really my land? Was it really my people? I felt that it was, but… not quite. Something was missing.
I remember the day I decided what I needed to do. I was walking to the cowshed on Kibbutz Ein Harod early one morning, as I did every day, on my way to my job feeding the newborn calves. The sun was just rising to my left over Mount Gilboa, the site where King Saul and his son Jonathan were slain in battle against the Philistines more than 2,000 years ago. I looked at the mountain, I thought about the biblical tale, and I felt a tugging at my heart. This is my land. These are my people.
And I wanted to make it legal, so there would never be any doubt, in my mind or anyone else’s. I was Jewish. And I belonged to Israel.
That’s why losing the passport was such a blow. I don’t want to feel differently now about my connection to Israel, but somehow I do. I feel like not-quite-a-citizen, even though the consulate assures me that’s not the case. It’s a reminder that even though I tried to make my home in Israel, I wasn’t up to snuff. It hurts.
I will still get to go through the Israeli citizens line at passport control. But now I have a telltale red laissez-pass instead of the familiar blue document. I see myself pushing it quietly, even sheepishly, across the barrier to the officer on duty. I don’t expect any “welcome homes.”
It’s just a piece of paper. But having it torn away from me has left a big hole in my heart.